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The Other White Water

Payette trumps Boise for river adventurers


The Boise River is the water gem of the city—especially in the summer, when the Fahrenheit is high and locals need a place to cool off. Last year city officials banned drinking on the river. No more carefree sipping, no more dinghies with coolers full of Bud. This year, nature one-upped city officials with high water levels that kept the river closed until just last weekend. But we're in Idaho, where our state song is "Old Man River," our state rodent is the river rat, even the word Idaho is Latin for "Another River over There" (well, unofficially, anyway) and though the Boise is convenient, when the going gets tough, the tough get to the Payette River.

Just beyond Horseshoe Bend on Highway 55, in Banks, rafts skitter into the Payette for floating fun. True, rafting the Payette is a little more adventurous than the Boise, but it shouldn't intimidate—even though it's one of Idaho's famous "wild" rivers.

"It's a great way to beat the heat," says Phil Light, manager of Bear Valley River Company, a rafting company in Horseshoe Bend. "I would say the experience on the Payette is more enjoyable [than on the Boise]; there is everything up here—easy stretches, moderate stretches and very difficult places as well. You have a broader perspective on the whole whitewater thing."

Light has been with the company for nine years. He's been kayaking and rafting for 10, and that's why he's in charge. But he assures that almost anyone who can float the Boise can also float the Payette. "On the easier stretch of the river, we take families, kids as young as 4, people as old as 80," he says.

Rapids are classified in one of six categories. Class I is flat water; Class II has waves starting to form with stronger currents; Class III has bigger waves but not too many holes to avoid; Class IV is consistent Class III with longer rapids and requires maneuvering your craft around objects; Class V is pretty much constant Class IV with the highest rated rapids that are usually navigated in a kayak; Class VI is virtually unrunable except for experts under optimal conditions.

The stretch on the Payette most favored by outfitters for popular trips is predominantly Class II and III rapids. The North Fork of the Payette from Smiths Ferry to Banks is mostly Class V rapids and outfitters don't run them.

Anne Long, office manager of Cascade Rafting Company, agrees with Light. "Payette River trips are good for everyone," Long says. "The Class II and III are wonderful trips for families." Cascade is in their 21st season on the Payette, they were the first and they are the largest company. They offer full- and half-day trips on easy and more difficult sections.

"Many who have done rafting before look for the more adventurous trips," she says of the rafting options. "There is always the possibility of falling out of the raft. It doesn't happen often, but if they aren't interested in that, we advise them to choose a different section."

So it sounds like the perfect alternative, but don't expect the Payette to turn into the traffic jam that is the Boise. "I don't think the Boise being closed has any effect on the Payette," says Long, "The river is a different character."

Long says that in comparing differences and similarities between the rivers, the Payette is quite different from the Boise for several reasons. For one, even the milder sections of the Payette have whitewater. For two, there are fewer people out on their own, tubing or swimming or boogie boarding.

"There are a lot of recreational river users who do rent rafts and go down. For the most part they are on the Main [Class II]," says Long. "It is a friendly and forgiving section; the consequences are pretty limited because the river bed is pretty deep. It's a great place for learning how to kayak, though I wouldn't recommend someone with no experience give it a try."

And for three, outfitters generally don't allow any alcohol on their trips. Oh, wait ... maybe that's not a difference. But the reason why is disparate—safety. Alcohol and the river don't mix, which may have been Boise officials' underlying reason for banning imbibing, though much of the anti-alcohol campaign focused on floaters' rowdiness (and frequent nudity).

This season, the Payette has two distinct advantages over the Boise. First, it holds a lot more water, so hazards such as downed trees do not present the same safety concern such debris does in the Boise River. Second, this is going to be a stellar season for the Payette.

"A lot of people are asking about the water level," Long says. "The high water on the Boise has worried people that it's high everywhere, but that's not the case on the Payette." The Boise River's water level is controlled by the hydro guys at Lucky Peak reservoir. Not so on the Payette. Though the Payette's water level was unusually higher for a short while in May and early June, it's now back to normal summer levels. And the forecast is great since all the reservoirs are full, promising rafters a lengthy season well into September.

And according to Long, September is a great time to raft. "We usually get some nice fall days," she says. "And it may not be a time people think of for rafting, but it really works out great."

Not that you should wait until September to try it, but maybe this is the year to try your paddle on new waters.